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Page:Littell's Living Age - Volume 134.djvu/382

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THE PEAK IN DARIEN:

certain prima facie presumption that close observation ought to permit us occasionally to obtain some brief glimpse, some glance, through but of lightning swiftness and evanescence, revealing partially this transcendent change.

In a majority of deaths the accompanying physical conditions hide from the spectators whatever psychological phenomena may be taking place. The sun of our poor human life mostly sets behind an impenetrable cloud. Of all forms of death the commonest seems to be the awful "agony," with its unconscious groans and stertorous breath. The dying person seems to sink lower and lower, as if beneath the waters of an unfathomable sea; a word, a motion, a glance, rising up at longer and longer intervals, till the last slow and distant sighs terminate the woeful strife, and the victory of Death is complete. When this is the mode of dissolution it is of course hopeless to look for any indication of the fate of the soul at its exodus; and the same holds good as regards death in extreme old age, or after exhausting disease, when the sufferer very literally "falls asleep." Again, there are deaths which are accompanied by great pain, or delirium, or which are caused by sudden accidents, altogether hiding from our observation the mental condition of the patient. Only in a small residue of cases the bodily conditions are such as to cause neither interference with, nor yet concealment of, the process of calm and peaceful dissolution, in the full light of mental sanity; and it is to these only we can look with any hope of fruitful observation. We ask, Whether in such cases instances have ever been known of occurrences having any significance, taken in connection with the solemn event wherewith they are associated? Does our forerunner on the hilltop show by his looks and actions — since he is too far off to speak to us — that he beholds, from his "Peak in Darien," an Ocean yet hidden from our view?

I should hesitate altogether to affirm positively that such is the case; but, after many inquiries on the subject, I am still more disinclined to assert the contrary. The truth seems to be that in almost every family or circle, questions will elicit recollections of death-bed scenes, wherein, with singular recurrence, appears one very significant incident, namely, that the dying person, precisely at the moment of death, and when the power of speech was lost, or nearly lost, seemed to see something — or rather, to speak more exactly, to become conscious of something present (for actual sight is out of question) — of a very striking kind, which remained invisible to and unperceived by the assistants. Again and again this incident is repeated. It is described almost in the same words by persons who have never heard of similar occurrences, and who suppose their own experience to be unique, and have raised no theory upon it, but merely consider it to be "strange," "curious," "affecting," and nothing more. It is invariably explained — that the dying person is lying quietly, when suddenly, in the very act of expiring, he looks up — sometimes starts up in bed — and gazes on (what appears to be) vacancy, with an expression of astonishment, sometimes developing instantly into joy, and sometimes cut short in the first emotion of solemn wonder and awe. If the dying man were to see some utterly-unexpected but instantly recognized vision, causing him a great surprise, or rapturous joy, his face could not better reveal the fact. The very instant this phenomenon occurs, death is actually taking place, and the eyes glaze even while they gaze at the unknown sight. If a breath or two still heave the chest, it is obvious that the soul has already departed.

A few narrations of such observations, chosen from a great number which have been communicated to the writer, will serve to show more exactly the point which it is desired should be established by a larger concurrence of testimony. The following are given in the words of a friend on whose accuracy every reliance may be placed: —

"I have heard numberless instances of dying persons showing unmistakably by their gestures, and sometimes by their words, that they saw in the moment of dissolution what could not be seen by those around them. On three occasions facts of this nature came distinctly within my own knowledge, and I will therefore limit myself to a detail of that which I can give on my own authority, although the circumstances were not so striking as many others known to me, which I believe to be equally true.

"I was watching one night beside a poor man dying of consumption; his case was hopeless, but there was no appearance of the end being very near; he was in full possession of his senses, able to talk with a strong voice and not in the least drowsy. He had slept through the day and was so

    experienced, and the vague and dim sentiment of immortality, common to mankind since the days of the cave-dwellers of the Stone Age.